Does the American Dream Have an Expiration Date?

By Michelle Chen Nov 21, 2009

When making the case for immigration’s contribution to society, activists reflexively highlight the economic resilience of immigrant families, particularly their seemingly ceaseless drive to work their way up from poverty. While the tired "American Dream" mythology seems perilously naive these days, advocates nonetheless internalize the rhetoric of upward mobility when trying to deepen the immigration debate. But many groups have enough history behind them to test that narrative of the upward-striving new American–and we can see failure alongside triumph. New York City’s Puerto Rican community has gone through a tumultuous struggle for social and economic enfranchisement for decades. Now, researchers say that while every immigrant group has its peaks and valleys, Puerto Ricans have been sloping downward. Data on Puerto Ricans from the Pew Hispanic Center shows commonality in the struggles that Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups face. But when you break it down, Puerto Rican New Yorkers have in some ways gotten stuck, economically speaking–even though they don’t face the same citizenship and language barriers that other ethnic communities wrestle with. Marianne McCune examined the ups and downs of the city’s Puerto Rican community in a recent WNYC radio broadcast:

In New York City, 31.2 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, compared with 27.8 percent of Latinos more broadly and 18.9 percent of the New York City population overall. Nationally, 22 percent of Puerto Ricans are in poverty, versus 19 percent of Latinos overall… Of course, when you look closely at the numbers you can see that other Latino groups are struggling as well — more Dominican and Mexican families in New York, for example, are living below the poverty line than Puerto Rican families. But note that the margin of error for these stats from the 2005-2007 American Community Survey is big enough to put these groups basically on a par with each other. So what’s most surprising is that these groups are so close, given the supposed advantages Puerto Ricans have: They’re all citizens (because Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth of the United States), they’ve been in New York longer (most Dominicans and Mexicans immigrated to New York more recently), and a higher percentage speak English.

Another measure of upward mobility, education, suggests that Puerto Ricans do worse than Blacks, whites, and Latinos overall, and more troublingly, many Puerto Rican youth don’t seem to be advancing past their parents’ academic gains:

only 31% of Puerto Ricans have completed beyond a high school education as compared to 77% of Whites, 71% of Blacks (including African immigrants) and 42% of all Latinos. Among Puerto Ricans between the ages of 24 and 32, only 16 percent have completed college, even though almost a quarter have at least one college-educated parent. And almost one in five Puerto Ricans that age with at least one college-educated parent dropped out of high school.

So if Puerto Ricans, many of them born in the continental U.S., are arguably less burdened by the government’s dysfunctional immigration policies, what’s holding them back? The WNYC piece suggests that the long historical trajectory of the Puerto Rican community has left long scars, as generations have endured entrenched poverty, urban deindustrialization and social disinvestment. (Note: Puerto Rico obviously isn’t a foreign country, so you could say the migrants from the island are not "immigrants" in the legal sense.) Previous research we’ve covered here before suggests that Latino mobility in general goes through fits and starts. Second-generation Latino youth, according to the Urban Institute, did better than their immigrant parents, but the achievements seem to drop off when the third-generation comes of age. Such findings raise intriguing questions about the promise of upward mobility. Does the rags-to-riches ethic have an expiration date? Does the third generation become cynical once they’ve seen that the dream still hasn’t materialized? Is the economic lag due to a cultural vacuum, in which a native-born generation loses ties to an older immigrant culture but remains alienated from positive social supports and networks in America? Do struggling Puerto Rican families today share more common ground with struggling Black families (who, after all, bear the legacy of previous eras of massive forced immigration)? It’s easy to see where the data might be obscuring deeper divides. The story begs for more rigorous analysis of economic trends among the native-born versus foreign born within racial and ethnic groups. Parsing the data by race as well as by national and ethnic origin could also provide clues as to whether invidious forms of structural racism impose "softer" barriers to advancement. There may be other types of stratification on nationality or class lines within the city’s burgeoning Latino population. The geographic concentration of poverty, as well as the degree of social cohesion within a community, may heavily influence how well a group fares–especially in a drastically segregated city like New York. And as some of the WNYC interviewees pointed out, the data is an incomplete picture of continued migration: many affluent Puerto Ricans not captured in this data–the ones who’ve "made it"–might have gone the way of so many immigrant groups throughout history, moving out of the barrio to the burbs. Still, the data could help social-change movements locate blindspots when dealing with communities that have been working, and waiting, for the promise to be fulfilled for one, two, or three generations. Historical memory stalks the shadows of the urban immigrant experience. While we hope that a sense of where we’ve come will push people to blaze new trails, maybe a constant sense of disappointment digs communities deeper into a cycle of self-defeatism. (Image: Boss Tweed via flickr)